Scientists fearful that Texas was about to approve a program to offer online master's degrees in science education -- from a creationist perspective -- received some good news Tuesday.
The Institute for Creation Research,  which received preliminary approval last month from an advisory committee to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, asked the commission not to consider the matter at this month's meeting. The institute acted after the commissioner of higher education sent the institute a series of questions about its program -- questions that weren't considered in the initial review.
The commissioner stressed in an interview Tuesday that he is open minded about the creationists' request for degree approval and that the authorization could still be granted. But with the matter off the agenda of this month's meeting, the creationist group will have to wait until the coordinating board's next meeting, in April, for approval. And some of the questions to which the commissioner is seeking answers -- such as why the master's program based on creation science is so different from every other science education program in the state -- may be difficult to answer.
News that Texas might approve the master's program by the institute became public in December and quickly alarmed many scientists and other educators in Texas.  So-called creation science is viewed as non-science by a wide consensus of researchers -- but is also viewed as dangerous, given how little most Americans know about science.
The idea that the state might give its OK to a new program to train teachers to instruct children in creation science set off alarm bells and calls for the commission to hold off on approving the institute. At the same time, the issue is delicate politically -- many Texas lawmakers (not to mention President Bush, a former governor) have argued that discredited theories such as intelligent design should be given equal billing with evolution in science courses.
Raymund A. Paredes, commissioner of higher education for Texas, said he has received numerous e-mail messages from politicians and others offering advice on handling the institute. He said that the office of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican who has also argued for teaching evolution and creationist ideas at the same time in schools, has been informed of the process being used, and has encouraged the coordinating board to follow its normal procedures.
The institute has been offering degrees from a base in California, but is shifting many operations -- including the master's degree program -- to a Texas base. Because the institute is not regionally accredited, it needs state coordinating board approval to offer the degrees. While the institute says that its courses teach evolutionary theory as well as creationism, the institute makes no effort to suggest that it is open to traditional scientific views.
The statement of faith  for everyone at the institute requires support for both “scientific creationism” and “Biblical creationism.” The former includes the belief that humans were created “in fully human form from the start” and that the universe was created “perfect” by the “creator.” The latter includes the beliefs that the Bible is literally true and “free from error of any sort, scientific and historical as well as moral and theological.” Specifically, the statement requires belief in the literal creation of the earth in six days, that Adam and Eve were the first humans, and in the virgin birth of Jesus.
Paredes said that he has raised three "concerns" with the institute, asking for more information for coordinating board review:
- Online learning. "Given all the research that demonstrates that science is best learned by actually doing it, how are you going to give students the proper exposure to the experimentation side of science online?" Parades said that this question is one he would ask of any online science program and wasn't related specifically to creationism.
- Curriculum. "Their curriculum doesn't line up very well with the curriculum available in conventional master of science programs here in Texas," he said. "I wanted them to either revise the curriculum or explain why it departed from the norm."
- Research. Paredes said that the institute "claims that their faculty do actual research," so he asked for "material that documented the research activities under way" and that show the research to be "based on solid scientific research."
Until the institute answers those questions, Paredes said, he is not making up his mind about whether to recommend approval to the coordinating board. He said it was "not unusual" for him to raise questions after an initial review and approval, and that people should not assume that the proposal is dead just because of the questions and the request for a delay.
"Because this is an issue that's controversial to a lot of people, we want to make sure we look at this matter throughly and fairly," he said.
Officials for the Institute for Creation Research declined to be interviewed for this article, but issued a press release noting the initial approval received from the advisory committee and pledging to provide the additional material requested by Paredes.
The press release said that the institute was "pleased" to "demonstrate its compliance and its competency in the fields that it teaches." The release also said that the goal of its graduate programs was "to provide teachers with the scientific knowledge and teaching skills necessary to actively engage their students and to prepare scientifically literate graduates."